Pyotr was not in his right mind. This much was evident from the unruly thatch which billowed up like storm clouds over his head and from the way the glasses perched on his nose appeared to belong to somebody else. A moustache and a pointed beard completed the impression of a man in possession of rather more hair than sanity. For now though, as the military band’s closing notes floated like dandelion seeds in the summer air, he sat snoozing peacefully and only when raindrops began to splatter in unannounced Essex style did his lids ungum to reveal pale blue eyes, their pupils obscured by milky discs sitting like twin moons in a Siberian sky.
“I write with voluptuous pleasure, you know,” he announced to nobody in particular, unless it was the mob of sparrows darting and tumbling about his feet. He inhaled the summer greenness of the rain as it drummed on the roof of the bandstand before stopping as suddenly as it had started.
Pyotr took a handkerchief from his breast pocket and mopped his brow, as if wiping away snow. He blew his nose loudly, startling the sparrows.
Other than that it was a mild day.
Pyotr’s bandstand was an octagonal affair, comprising a Victorian red brick base with a wrought-iron railing running wedding-cake fashion around its perimeter, surmounted by iron poles, eight of them, rising like flimsy drainpipes to support a canopy, itself edged with delicate iron latticework. The edifice resembled the outer frame of a gangly teenage gasometer – too tall to be elegant and too frail to stand up for long, as if stricken by tuberculosis.
Pyotr and his shock of hair were often to be seen on the common on Saturday afternoons. He would sit alone on a collapsible plastic seat—the white, blue and red stripes of which were the colours of the three Russias—and tap out time with his white stick while an imaginary band played waltzes on a podium that only he could see. Some distance away, next to a nondescript van parked by a duck pond, two men would stand smoking and occasionally glancing Pyotr’s way.
Oompapa, oompapa. Dashing hussars with gold-tasselled epaulettes and rows of medals pinned to their chests drew high-cheeked ladies into their embrace, swirling them in circles about the bandstand, their feet barely touching the ground. The golden tones of the cornets pierced the ladies’ hearts and moistened the blind eyes of Pyotr who, under the name of Peter, had told tales that only the inebriated believed when he served them behind the bar. In the Cauliflower. Time gentlemen please. But drunkards were not interested in waltzes.
Not far from the Common swaggered an aging brick school of Knowledge, Manners and Virtue, with its summer complement of boys in boaters and future famous former pupils; no place for the likes of Peter who pulled pints. Schoolboys occasionally gathered in small groups at the nearby entrance to some woods, there to share a cigarette beneath an avenue of lime trees and waft the smoke away with their boaters.
Back in those days, when police cars had bells and four and elevenpence would buy you a Hard Day’s Night, typical daytime users of the common might include people walking their dogs, kite flyers, library book readers flicking avidly through engrossing stories and bird watchers annoyed at impromptu ball games. On sunny days the grassy banks filled with young women in summer dresses feigning not to see their coterie of male admirers.
Except for the proliferation of electronic devices in the hands of its visitors and fifty years of embonpoint on its old oaks, the common has not changed that much. If they are observant, however, strollers may notice an old couple who walk there every day hand in hand.
The lady is dressed in a brown coat that has seen her through many winters. She has the creviced features of one to whom making ends meet is second nature but who always makes sure the birds are fed. Her partner shuffles along beside her as best he can and their dog plods behind as slowly as they do. Plain they may look but there is something quaint about these old-timers, for each day they stop at the same spot by the pond and embrace for a few moments while their dog looks at them enquiringly. Maybe it is a trick of the light playing on their drab attire but during this time it almost seems they have become transparent.
The common has a darker side to its nature due, perhaps, to its proximity to the woods. Damp mist is liable to descend upon it as soon as the sun goes in, shutting out the sounds from without and disrupting people’s sense of direction. Stand at its centre at such times and you could feel as panicky as a rabbit in snake pit.
One early summer’s day Pyotr pushed past a guilty group of underage smokers.
“Out of my way!”
His accent was foreign and his manner gruff for one of such regal bearing.
“The best seats will soon be gone!”
The schoolboys eyed each other quizzically as Pyotr unfolded his plastic seat not ten yards from where they stood.
“Shush! They’re coming. Listen to the music!”
Marching thump, thump, thump down from the barracks came the 28-piece Essex regimental band, clad in khaki and pursued by skipping urchins and barking dogs. The band fell out at the foot of the rostrum and stood chatting and smoking before filing up its steps to take up their positions. One stern look from the bandleader silenced their shuffling and at his bidding they launched into a stout rendition of Sons of the Brave. Losing no momentum, they led straight into British Legion before slowing down for the more reflective Silent Heroes, which afforded a few of the band members the time to swab the sweat from their necks.
With one hand Pyotr tapped his stick against his thigh to mark time with the Bidgood compositions. The other hand remained in his lap, where it lay twitching and wriggling like a beetle on its back.
“What’s he doing?” asked a thin boy with mud on his shoes.
Handsome in a girlish sort of way, this boy was frailer than his friends and was the butt of their juvenile jibes. Beneath his grey flannels, the boy’s thighs bore angry bruises from the frequent dead-legs he received from the town’s finest sons as they got to grips with Knowledge, Manners and Virtue, laced with the finer arts of threat, derision and brutality which would stand them in such good stead in their future careers. No sooner did the pain of one bruise abate than another was administered.
“Why don’t you go and ask him, Carter?”
Pyotr stood up. He waved an imaginary something in one hand and pointed to it with the other. No matter how many times he asked them, the band never played his waltz.
“We don’t go in for effeminate stuff like that in this regiment,” said a pig-faced bass drummer, his bloodshot eyes looking Pyotr up and down, searching for weakness. They alighted upon the latter’s sloping shoulders.
“Straighten up, man! Write something with more guts.”
“Please sir,” asked Carter, the boy with muddy shoes and painful bruises, “who are you talking to?”
Pyotr turned his blind gaze upon the boy, who recoiled when he saw the milky veils.
“What’s that you say? Brown and mild? Are you old enough to be in here drinking, young fellow?”
The bruised boy’s eyes widened. He gingerly waved a hand in front of Pyotr’s face to see if he could see.
“They don’t like Russian waltzes in this country. Do you like ballet, boy?”
Carter was about to say yes but caught sight of his friends and thought better of it. He calculated it would cost him a week of dead-legs if he admitted any interest. These friends would go on to be accountants or lawyers, estate agents maybe. Some would enter politics, others were officer material. Had he lived, Carter would probably have gone on to be a zoologist.
“They say you’ve escaped from the loony bin,” said Carter.
“Lublin? That’s in Poland boy. Would you like to hear my waltz?”
“Errr, not really.”
The dead-leggers glared.
“Well, okay then.”
“Come closer boy, I want to smell you first.”
The boy backed away.
“Is that you Bob?”
The boy’s eyes widened further.
“How do you know my name?”
“Now then Pyotr, what are you up to?” interrupted another voice.
It belonged to a lank-haired man.
“Keep away from him, you boys,” said the latter in a voice like sandpaper.
The newcomer drew heavily on the last inch of a Woodbine before flicking it to the ground and treading it into the earth. Lighting up a new cigarette as he went, the man positioned himself between the dead-legged boy and the lover of Russian waltzes.
“Time to go back to the dacha, Pyotr,” he said.
Pyotr’s knees cracked as he turned to face to the intruder. He stood sniffing the air for a moment.
“Do you know what? I could have sworn I heard Bob,” he said, “I can picture him sitting in his room, scented nearly to suffocation!”
Pyotr folded his collapsible plastic chair and put it under one arm. He tapped his way across the rough ground of the Common and went along the path by the pond, pausing once to support himself on the white railings and to raise his stick in farewell to the band.
The boughs of summer trees cascaded over the path where the van was parked.
“I don’t understand why they won’t play my waltz,” Pyotr complained.
The van man folded his sports paper. “Get in,” he growled, exerting a no-nonsense grip on Pyotr’s shoulder.
“We cannot escape our Fate,” declared Pyotr, “there was something fatalistic about my meeting with this girl. But my conscience is clear. I told her what she could expect of me, and what she must not count upon receiving.”
It was as if he were reciting the words from a book.
After watching Pyotr go, the lank-haired man folded his arms and cupped his cigarette with the lit end turned inwards to his palm. The schoolboys gathered round him.
“Do you know that blind man?”
“Is he Russian?”
“Is he a poofter?”
Annoyance clouded the man’s features. He unfolded his arms and pointed the burning cigarette at the boys’ faces.
“He thinks he’s Tchaikovsky.”
The sparrows grew fat as summer progressed. Pyotr was not seen on the common for a while. Only the ghostly bandstand missed him. It fell silent and took to contemplating its reflection mingle with a bed of water lilies in the pond. The dead-legged boy’s bruises changed from blue to brown then faded altogether. It was a relief not being at school.
One day, after the pink had returned to his thighs, the boy took a long walk alone across the common. He was having trouble with God.
Coming to the pond he inhaled its muddy fragrance and stopped to watch the damselflies hovering above the lilies. More violence, he thought, as one of them swooped down and grabbed its prey. Why did they say God moves in mysterious ways when He had created all creatures so they had to rip each other apart just in order to stay alive? God must have studied at the school of Knowledge, Manners and Virtue!
Carter left the damselflies to chomp their meal and moved on through the woods via an avenue of lime trees, or lindens as they were called in those parts. He skirted quickly by the strange Russian man, who was out and about again, dancing Pygmalion with Saint-Saëns.
Lindens fascinated Carter. In summer their leaves became caked in aphids and their trunks served as thoroughfares for columns of ants on their way to milk their green sweetness. Carter took care not to tread on any ants as he traced one column back to its source. How intriguing the insect world was! Ant heads, he had decided, were like something from Mars while aphids resembled lemons on legs and bluebottles had playful eyes. It took great patience and a steady hand to get close enough to the tiny creatures to spy on them with a magnifying glass. Time flew by in their company.
The ants’ sweet tooth took them resolutely over a pile of leaves that had been stacked up by the wind, the trail zigzagging from the underside of one leaf and back along its top to a point where the next leaf overlapped. Like a child playing pick-up-sticks, Carter meticulously eased away the ant-free leaves to shorten the route, making sure to join the remaining leaves so that the scent trail from one leaf to the next remained unbroken. Were the ants grateful for the time he saved them?
“I’m the tambourine man,” he whispered, “one day you’ll follow me out of here and we’ll pay those bullies a visit.”
An uneasy silence fell over the woods. The sparrows felt it and took off in a bunch to chirrup elsewhere.
Carter brooded over the treatment meted out by his friends. What had he ever done to warrant their taunts? Whatever the bullies might imply, his night-time fantasies were no different to theirs, centred mostly on the young woman who served them cough candy and wagon wheels in the sweet shop not far from the school. With her fleshy lips and tight-fitting clothes she fired his imagination no less than she did theirs, the difference being that he was unable to join in their lewdness. On the one and only occasion he had tried to join their puffed-up banter the friends fell about laughing. It was soon after that the dead-legging started.
“Why do I have to be so useless?” mumbled Carter. It was like the time in class he had asked “can the Universe think?” and everyone, including the master, had ridiculed him.
Carter grabbed a broken twig and angrily churned the ants’ nest until soldier ants teemed in all directions looking for trouble.
It wasn’t a stupid question. Humans can think and they are but a collection of spheres and forces, just like the universe. Maybe the earth thinks, too. His so-called friends acted differently when they were in a group. They are like ants, he thought, each one is separate but the nest, with its queen, workers, males and even ergatoids (he knew all there was to know about ants) behaved as a single being, ergo it thinks. So he addressed the nest.
“I’ll spread jam over those boys’ flesh and you’ll devour it until they scream.”
In matters of the flesh, Pyotr preferred boys to women. Especially young Bob. Boys’ bodies were as soft as women’s but their tongues were not barbed like theirs were, especially that reptile Antonina, who let generals penetrate her and who taunted Pyotr for not similarly honouring her.
Carter’s first name was Robert, too. Pyotr did things to Bob that Carter never knew existed and then wrote tortured symphonies about them.
Down on his hands and knees, engrossed in his insects, Carter failed to notice the shape looming over him. Sightless Pyotr, on the other hand, needed no magnifying glass. He had smelt out Carter. His nostrils flared as he inhaled the aroma of the boy. He wetted his lips and silently undid his fly buttons.
Unlike Pyotr, Peter was fascinated by women. Working in pubs afforded him a vantage point from which to observe them. He studied their behaviour, loved the manner in which they walked with their arms crooked outwards at the elbow joint so they could swing without colliding with the roundness of their hips. Indeed, he had once won a bet by correctly unmasking a stunning transvestite simply by her straight arms.
The atmosphere in the pub had a warming effect on Peter; it settled the goose bumps on a shy man’s social skills and gave him the courage to tell tales. Peter knew he should be making more of his life, which was putt-puttering along like a fishing boat on a fjord, a smoke ring puffing from its chimney with every putt.
Then one February lunchtime Antonia came into the pub and changed his life forever.
Antonia’s hair was shiny and long, with petrol blue reflections like a beetle’s back. Her hips swayed as she walked and her forearms bent satisfyingly away from her body. She perched her bottom on the leather seat of a bar stool, locked her stockinged knees together and drew her legs up and around until her high heels were safely hooked over the chrome foot rail. She relaxed, brushed a lock of hair from her eyes and ordered a snowball.
The unctuosity of the Advocaat liqueur as it slid at its own speed from the bottle into the glass filled Peter with lascivious thoughts. He noticed that in Antonia’s eyes there were turquoise flecks amidst the hazelness. He placed the drink in front of her on the bar and uncorked the lemonade bottle.
Antonia said nothing but raised a manicured finger when the glass was three-quarters full. She puckered her lips around an unlit cigarette and leant forward towards the match that Peter was striking. She cupped his unsteady hand in hers until the cigarette end glowed red. Looking him straight in the eye, she inhaled deeply then blew the smoke into his face.
“I’m a historian,” she said, her voice huskier than a man’s.
Now Peter was not averse to stretching the truth himself on occasions. When your life is as mundane as a wall of white tiles it is hard to resist the temptation to liven it up with a colourful frieze of half truths and harmless exaggerations.
As the bell over the street door tinkled to signal the sultry historian’s departure, a thickset, one-toothed man who sat unshaven at the bar every day, his mute collie dog sleeping dutifully beneath his stool and a copy of the Sporting Life clenched under an armpit, turned to Peter and winked.
“Bit of alright, eh?”
In the ensuing weeks Antonia came into the pub most days. Peter could not help but notice the effect she had on men of all ages and walks of life. She radiated that same invisible glue which attracts iron filings to a magnet, midges to a tender skin and bluebottles to a rotting apple. The males pestered her with ribald remarks and unchaste chat-up lines.
“You’re not like the others,” she said to Peter one day. “Would you like to go for a walk?”
The glass Peter was polishing almost slipped through his fingers. His heart raced like a Maserati. He was glowing like a heap of rusty car parts transformed by a blanket of snow.
As winter turned to spring Peter stopped working in the Cauliflower at lunchtimes. Instead, he waited outside for Antonia and, like playground playmates, they took sandwiches and lemonade to picnic on the common.
“Did you know there used to be a bandstand right here by the pond where we are sitting?” asked Antonia, brushing crumbs from Peter’s lap before she sat on it.
“So you really are a historian?”
“Of course I am!” she said, approaching her lips to Peter’s to quell any further questioning.
They finished their sandwiches in silence. Peter looked pensive.
“Why can’t I see you in the evening?”
She kissed him again full on the lips but the questions kept coming.
“Is there someone else?”
“It’s nothing like that.”
“I can’t tell you.”
Through summer this is how their one-hour-a-day romance developed. They talked mostly about things Peter had always considered highbrow but which took on a glow of magic when shrouded in Antonia’s cigarette smoke. She smelt of freshly turned earth and petals. Peter was infatuated whereas she… well Peter found it hard to fathom her feelings. She was as sophisticated as he was gauche.
Antonia said she liked classical music, especially from the romantic period. Peter borrowed books and records from the county library in the hope of learning about this and all the other educated things that she shared with him, but the fact was the words held no enchantment unless he could see them shaped by her lips. And when autumn came he looked into her eyes and saw that their colour matched the falling leaves. Before she looked away, it seemed to Peter that the turquoise flecks in them began to move.
“I can’t go on like this,” he said, “I love you.”
“You must not,” she replied, “you’ll spoil everything.”
As the days grew colder so Peter’s torment grew. They took brisk walks now, often under heavy skies, penetrating deep into the woods. The avenue of limes witnessed their embraces and it seemed to Peter the trees whispered advice despite the chill wind which worried them and wrenched the sap-starved leaves from their boughs.
He wondered if the trees were concealing rain-soaked messages for him in the withered remnants that fell to the ground. The linden is, after all, the tree of lovers, not that Peter possessed such knowledge.
“She’s driving me insane,” he said to the one-toothed man later that day when he ran into him outside the pub. The man’s collie dog rolled its eyes up and sniffed at Peter’s shoes, as it might a sparrow corpse. The man slapped its head with the Sporting Life.
“Plenty more fish in the sea,” he lisped with the bitterness of the failed boxer.
Peter recalled how the one-toothed man claimed to be able to fell a man with one punch. He said he had sparred with golden boy Billy Walker but his ugliness and addled brains meant that no-one in the Cauliflower believed him. Even his dog looked at him imploringly during such sad boasts. Yet, reflecting on his own plight, Peter almost envied him.
“I must move on,” he told himself but with every passing day he fell deeper into Antonia’s web. On her recommendation he borrowed a book about Tchaikovsky from the library. He tried to read it by himself but the words seemed lifeless. “Bring it with you tomorrow and we’ll look at it together,” she said as they parted in front of the pub.
The air next day was crisp. A flock of seagulls wheeled high in the air then slowly peeled away in search of landfills. Peter and Antonia hurried along the lime tree avenue.
“Show me the book,” she said, “let’s find somewhere to sit.”
They walked deeper into the woods and came to places where the sounds of the town didn’t penetrate and where squirrels scurried. Here and there were neglected piles of old wood – sawn up tree trunks that had been left there after glade thinning or storm damage. Peter aimed for a pile that stood beside a silver birch but Antonia pulled him back.
“No, not there,” she said urgently.
“Why not? It’s just the right height for you to sit on. I’ll lift you up and I can stand beside you.”
“It’s not clean.”
Peter saw only logs and leaves.
“Come away,” she insisted.
Looking again, Peter noticed that the logs were dotted here and there with used tissues.
Instead, Antonia chose a single fallen tree trunk on which to sit and began to turn the pages of the library book. From time to time she nodded her head in agreement and at others she pouted and stroked her chin. Peter cared little about the composer or his art but when Antonia read aloud from the book there was nowhere in the world he would rather have been. He heard about baby Tchaikovsky’s love for Fanny, the Swiss governess who gave him the warmth of which his austere mother was incapable; the trauma caused by his being sent away to boarding school; and how he blamed himself for contracting scarlet fever and fatally infecting a cousin.
Peter was entranced by Antonia’s lips as she spoke. Passion burned in her eyes as she recounted the composer’s struggles with the women in his life and his preference for males – the younger the better – and how you could hear it all in his music provided you knew how to listen. It seemed to Peter that the turquoise flecks in Antonia’s eyes danced as she described the waltz from Swan Lake.
“Did you listen to the Pathétique as I told you?” she asked.
He had tried. As with most classical music he couldn’t get into it; it was a jumble of stuffy notes that had neither head nor tail.
“It has a hidden meaning, you know. It’s a suicide note.”
Now that she mentioned it, Peter had thought bits of the music sounded maudlin.
“Tchaikovsky had a big secret. When it was about to come out he was told to drink arsenic and blame it onto contaminated water!”
“That must have been hard to swallow,” said Peter.
Without warning she put down the book. Peter was expecting her to smile at his joke but instead she was crying.
“I wish I could die now, here in your arms!” she said.
It was typical of the way she was. At times she was bright and gay, at others sad and mysterious. At no time could Peter get her out of his thoughts; he hardly remembered his life before he met her and he dared not think about the future.
When came the time that year for swallows to congregate on overhead wires, a group of young children was playing football on the common, their coats thrown down for goalposts. When a misplaced pass saw the ball land at his feet, Peter skipped away from Antonia and dribbled it through a tangle of juvenile legs and on towards the makeshift goal. With the goal at his mercy he deliberately fell over, sending a ripple of giggles through both teams. He ruffled one young lad’s hair as he made his way back to Antonia.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
She was sitting on the grass, her shoulders hunched, looking like a wilted flower. Her knuckles were clenched to her cheeks and tears were seeping between her fingers. Peter lifted her to her feet and pulled her fists away from her face. The only time he had seen such agony on a face was when, as a child, he had picked up a cat that had been run over by a lorry. Its body was intact but all four legs were crushed to pulp, dangling uselessly like empty banana skins.
Peter helped Antonia towards the woods. With his back resting against a lime tree, he took her in his arms again. He held her close and stroked her hair until the sobs subsided. Lifting her chin, he looked into her eyes and saw the turquoise flecks swimming in sadness. At that moment it seemed to him that the lime trees wept as well.
“You’re going to be such a lovely father,” she said in an empty voice.
“This is ridiculous; we must be together all the time!”
“I live for our lunchtime dates, Peter. You have seen the very best of me but I don’t deserve you.”
Lunchtime goodbyes were usually said in front of the pub. Peter would then watch her cross the road, her hips swaying in that languorous way which so enthralled him, and on through the main door of the council offices. He assumed that was where she worked.
“Let me pick you up after work this evening!”
“No,” she said, “we must stop seeing each other.”
“I’ll be there to walk you home.”
And the next day she did not come, nor the following one.
When the third day passed with no sign of her, Peter went home and shut himself in his room with a bottle of Stolichnaya. He opened the Tchaikovsky book and tore out the pages one by one. He screwed them up and tossed them into a coal fire and sat watching the flames until they died down. By the time the embers were cold Peter’s eyes had sunken lifeless into their sockets and shivers wracked his body.
What Carter saw when he looked up from the ants nest filled him with panic of the kind the driver of a vehicle stranded on a level crossing must feel with an express train bearing down upon it. This was no prank in the showers of the sort of which his friends were fond. The ten seconds it took for his senses to register the enormity of his predicament were his undoing. Had he reacted more quickly he might have escaped the blind man’s clutches. Instead, his legs gave way as he tried to scramble to his feet. It was too late. Carter felt his head gripped between strong hands and before long something forced his teeth apart and filled his mouth.
“It’s been so long, Bob!”
Carter tried to call out but no sound would come. A gruesome rhythm was upon him, filling his head with the sound of cackling goblins and cannon fire.
After another night of agonising, Peter took a heavy heart and a thick head to the council offices as soon as day broke, stopping only to buy a pint of gold top from a surprised milkman. Gulping down the milk as he went, Peter paced up and down in front of the offices, keeping the entrance in view until workers began to trickle in. Twenty minutes later the trickle had grown to a steady stream and after ten more minutes only a few hurrying figures could be seen. But Antonia was not amongst them.
Peter kept watch again in the evening but there was no sign of her. He kept up the vigil for a fortnight. The following week he checked car parks and back entrances but all to no avail. Peter took to walking alone over the common. He asked the lime trees to help him but although he was sure they heard him they said nothing in reply. He sat on the Tchaikovsky log and reflected upon his predicament. Who was she? Was it all a dream?
“Have I gone mad?” he asked a squirrel.
The animal stopped nibbling and stared hard at Peter. The acorn it was clutching between its paws dropped to the ground.
“Well?” said Peter.
The squirrel bobbed its bushy tail and turned its back on him.
Peter watched it scamper across the ground then up a tree. He felt sure it knew the answer.
Not seeing Antonia turned Peter’s days into nights and his nights into dungeons. The only comfort he could find was reading the remaining torn remnants of the Tchaikovsky biography which clung like bits of raw skin to the hardback cover. Reading the words he heard her husky intonation. Her voice, her perfume, her hips. The lingering taste of her cigarette; the way she brushed the hair from her eyes when she laughed. Oh those eyes! Imagining their turquoise flecks was the only way sleep would eventually come to Peter after hours of tossing and turning had twisted his bedclothes into tortured knots.
One day in front of the council offices he thought he glimpsed her. He shouted out her name.
Only a collie dog answered his call. It sniffed at him with disdain then circled around him until a rolled up Sporting Life slapped it across the haunches. The animal cowered to the pavement as the one-toothed man battered it into submission before turning his attention to Peter.
“Christ, you look in a bad way!”
Peter focussed haggard eyes on the man.
“Have you seen Antonia?”
The man slapped him hard across the chest with his Sporting Life.
“Keep away from her, do you hear? She’s not interested in your type.”
Another Sporting Life blow landed, this time on Peter’s face, but it hardly registered.
“Tell her I love her,” he said weakly. But the man ignored him.
The frantic rhythm intensified in response to Carter’s squirming. As the pain worsened, he tried to think of the wood ants. Why did they not come to his rescue?
When at last the vice grip on his head slackened, gentle fingers began caressing his face.
“My darling Bobby! I’ve missed you so much!”
Before passing out Carter coughed and spat convulsively. He fell face first into the ants’ nest.
“Don’t suffocate me,” was all Antonia would say when eventually Peter found her, quite by chance, queuing up ahead of him in the main post office in the High Street. She greeted him as if nothing had ever happened. As abruptly as she had exited his life she was back in it again. With conditions.
“Do you believe in platonic relationships?” she asked.
“But I want to go out with you properly!”
“It’s not possible, Peter.”
Peter smashed a fist against his forehead. He knew he should walk away. Instead he paced in circles until Antonia stepped in front of him and they collided.
“Look, why don’t we walk a bit?” she said.
So they went through the High Street in virtual silence, each stealing sideways glances at the other. Every time Peter was about to vent his anger over the way she was treating him she confounded him with her turquoise flecks. He craved a keg of love but only dregs remained. Yet it seemed to him an empty tankard was better than facing life with no hope.
“Don’t you ever wish you were somebody else?” she asked.
“You are killing me.”
“I will kill you if you don’t cheer up! Let’s go in here.”
When Carter came round every part of his head was burning. Tiny shapes agonised before his eyes. Furtive hands were tugging at his trousers.
“Help me ants! Please! Where are your soldiers?”
But the soldiers could not help – they were dying. The wood ants’ nest was under attack from a swarm of diminutive yellow ants, their bodies almost transparent. Brave soldiers’ bodies were clamped in the jaws of a score of smaller creatures lined up on either side of them. A detachment of miniature killers approached each of Carter’s trapped friends and sank their stings into the agonising heads. Carter cried out as a detachment of tiny invaders turned their attention to his face.
“Whatever’s wrong Bob? Relax! It’s your turn now to feel good. You missed me too, didn’t you? Here, let me help you.”
Antonia steered Peter into a music shop. It was housed in a Tudor building and Peter had to duck to get through the door. Inside, the place exuded a faint whiff of madness which muffled the noise of the traffic outside.
The business was kept by an elderly couple who looked more like mental hospital inmates than shopkeepers. The man sported a shock of Einstein hair and had eye-balls which functioned independently, such that he could be looking at you with one eye while keeping the other one skinned for shoplifters. His wife was, if anything, even more scary. Her tawdry hair stuck out in all directions, bestowing upon her the appearance of an unwilling cat after a bath. Unlike those of her spouse, which splayed like the legs of a compass, the wife’s eyes arrowed straight ahead like laser beams, the effect made all the more disturbing by fish-eye lenses mounted in pink National Health frames.
“Take no notice of what they look like,” whispered Antonia, “they are lovely people.”
And so it proved when Peter returned later to purchase recordings of the music of which Antonia spoke.
“Your young lady is very knowledgeable,” said the shopkeeper, “and, if I may say so, exceedingly attractive.”
Peter felt the laser beam eyes of the shopkeeper’s wife boring into him. “She has many secrets,” she said.
“Do you have any Russian waltzes?” Peter asked.
The pond froze over as Christmas approached and icicles decorated the twigs of the lime trees, looking like the tears of broken-hearted lovers.
After another night of corkscrewed sheets Peter went early to the common, upon which fresh snow had fallen overnight. He was about to step out onto the white blanket when something held him back. Placing the first footprints on this sea of perfection seemed unchaste; it was as unsoiled as his relationship with Antonia. Suddenly he felt the urge to penetrate this whiteness, to trample patterns all over it, to feel it warm to his desire, to spread pools of red across its surface and turn them into gold.
Peter skirted the common towards the frozen pond. When he reached the white railings he stopped dead.
“I am not the first,” he muttered.
A double trail of footprints led across the snow and made directly for the avenue of lime trees. Alongside them paw prints gambolled along a more uncertain course.
A sense of betrayal overcame Peter as he contemplated the sullied snow, the chill air making his nose run. Was this how Tchaikovsky had felt when ‘that reptile Antonina Miliukova’ insisted he fulfil his bedroom duties with her? The spell of purity was broken. No winter swans could be seen, only crows pecking at overnight corpses stiffened by the cold. The footprints seemed to move, beckoning him to follow.
“We want to show you something but you are not going to like what you see.”
Coming on top of the frost-induced silence of the empty common and the numbing cold which set his ear lobes tingling, the morbid insistence of the footprints put Peter in mind of funerals. He trudged with them to the linden avenue, his tongue dry and swollen.
From there the trails led on unbroken to the heart of the woods. Placing his feet in the footprints Peter proceeded noiselessly; no pleasant scrunch of fresh snow underfoot.
Further along the path an oblivious flock of sparrows swooped down from the trees, all chatter and flipping tails. They fussed around the footprints, plunging their beaks into the pockets of melted snow therein. As Peter approached they took off again in a squadron. They were laughing at him.
Peter knew he would soon reach the Tchaikovsky log. He stopped walking while his eyes flicked from tree to bush, searching for it, a sense of foreboding crawling up the back of his neck like a spider. It was not easy to distinguish fallen timber under a camouflage of snow. Then out of nowhere something hurled itself at him.
Carter tried once again to wriggle free of the hands but it was to no avail, now they were moving along his legs. Most of the wood ants were dead. Those that were still fighting were soon overwhelmed by the weight of numbers in the yellow ant army. In Carter’s brain their cries mingled with his own. Soon the nest would be annihilated.
Bereft of protection, the queen was already in her death throes. The yellow ants had dragged her to the surface. Carter began to snivel uncontrollably; his tears dropping onto the queen. They revived her momentarily but her wriggling was but short-lived. Was it for her he was weeping or for himself?
What sort of god would create such a world of pain? The boy drifted in and out of consciousness. At times he managed to block out the evil sounds, the slurps and the smacks, so that only the whispering of the tree spirits reached his ears.
“We ought to do something!” muttered the drowsy lime trees awaken from their winter slumber.
The composer Tchaikovsky’s sexual preferences are well documented. He is on record as saying that his Pathétique symphony contains a secret story. Some scholars postulate that Tchaikovsky’s incestuous relationship with his underage nephew Bob Davidov fires the narrative to the heart-rending 6th symphony, which should be read as a suicide note from the great man. The final bars of the symphony fade away as the composer orchestrates his own death.
That Tchaikovsky drew inspiration from his pubescent boy-loves is indisputable. According to the morals of the day, these children, the argument goes, may have been regarded as androgynous redeeming angels. Two of his underage lovers—if that is the appropriate term for them—committed suicide. Eduard Zak had just turned 19 when he died. Of him Tchaikovsky wrote “My God! No matter what they told me at the time, and how I have since tried to console myself, my guilt about him is unbearable.” His young nephew Bob he treated like a wife. After the composer’s death it was Bob who received most of the royalties from the music. Bob shot himself aged 34.
Officially, Tchaikovsky’s death was attributed to cholera but rumours persist that he was coerced into committing suicide. Whatever the truth behind this tormented soul’s death, his last great work is an impassioned outpouring of grief and regret.
Peter yelped in surprise as the hurtling form hit him and threw him off balance. It was the barkless collie dog. Its teeth snapped shut on thin air before it pulled away and ran to where a log pile lay. Peter’s eyes followed it and then his heart missed several beats.
Two figures were entwined in full view. The larger form was standing with its back to Peter. The second figure was obscured by the first, but Peter could see it was seated atop the log pile. As he watched, the first form doubled forward from the waist and its head ducked down to the middle of the second form. At the same time, the arms of the second form moved backwards to act as props to support its body, now arching, head thrown back. The arms were bent outwards at the elbow.
Suddenly Peter understood what the lime trees had been trying to tell him.
This then was her secret. Emotions welled up in Peter’s brain like bubbles chattering the lid of a coffee percolator. He progressed quickly from surprise to horror, from anguish to despair, and finally, on recognising Antonia’s partner, to blind rage. Why him of all people?
His shoes kicking up an angry spray of snow as he went, Peter charged towards the figure. But the sheep does not charge the bull and survive unscathed.
Boxers, accustomed as they are to receiving blows from all angles, develop a sixth sense for danger, even in retirement. Yet Peter’s charge was upon him and the force of it knocked him off-balance. Had Peter pressed home his advantage immediately his life might not have changed so irreparably. Instead he looked at Antonia. He took in the expression of horror on her face, the fur scarf which warmed her neck, the row of bone buttons on her duffle coat. Further down, snow clung to her thigh-high boots. And in the exposed region between buttons and boots, the pinkness of her genitals.
What colour remained drained from Peter’s face. His limbs went as weak as those of the smashed cat. His eyelids closed and opened again like heavy curtains working to wipe away the disbelief. Slowly, he raised his gaze to meet Antonia’s.
“Yes Peter,” she murmured, “your eyes do not deceive you, I have a penis.”
Like body fluids on a fresh tissue, it took a few moments for this information to soak into Peter’s brain. Before the process was complete, the one-toothed boxer felled him with a single blow.
Peter crumpled and tumbled forward, cracking his skull on the exposed part of the log pile between Antonia’s legs, spattering blood over her secret. A peppering of turquoise flecks floating on the surface of hazel irises was the final image his brain registered as amnesia seeped into its every crevice like brine into a sponge.
When Pyotr came round he found his vision was obscured by a turquoise haze.
“What possessed me,” he chided himself, “to pass out in the middle of the forest?”
It was not the wisest thing to do in a Russian winter. Vodka or no vodka, a man was unlikely to survive for more than a few hours out here.
Pyotr listened. Through the trees the lilting melody of a waltz floated to his ears, music which was luminous and insouciant, as supple as Bob in the dawn hours, his lithe body bathed in white light streaming through the windows overlooking the snow lawns of the Tchaikovsky home in Klin.
“This is perfect for the second movement of my symphony!”
An irresistible drowsiness was spreading though his body. All Pyotr could see was a turquoise fog of vodka fumes seeping into every cell of his imagination.
“I must die, but not here!”
A man with secrets needs time to prepare his death. As he slipped further into a stupor he called out for Bob.
“My angel! My idol! Where are you?”
In his delirium Carter was aware of the whispering of the wind and the disapproving voices of the trees. Then came the triumphant clicking of the yellow ants as they moved in to pillage the food galleries of the conquered and to gorge themselves on eggs and defenceless larvae wriggling in abandoned incubation chambers.
Then he heard men’s voices directly over him, one full of ashen menace as abrasive as pumice and the other submissive and foreign sounding.
“They are fighting over me.”
Then a crack of fist against flesh, a cry of pain and then a crumpled thud.
“When I hit a man he stays down,” hissed the voice of ash. “And now for my prize.”
A searing pain, worse than anything he’d ever known, roused Carter from his delirium. His eyes ceased their swimming and gradually a horde of yellow ants came into focus. They were dragging the murdered queen away, her body still glistening, their progress hampered by gobs of human saliva, tears and other fluids which were dropping on them from above.
Was this God’s work? Was this His idea of creation, His divine plan? If so, He should be ashamed of himself. Or was it Satan? Carter tried to concentrate on these thoughts to blot out the pain being inflicted on him, the insatiable grunts and once again that grotesque rhythm. If God was good, how come only bad things ever came Carter’s way? The nearest he’d ever got to happiness was abject loneliness. God and Satan must be one and the same being, not even two sides of the same coin; it was the only explanation.
Beyond pain lies euphoria; a place where waltzes play. Carter’s body could take no more. It was limper than a queen ant’s body sucked dry of its juices.
After the accident, Peter was taken to the county hospital for treatment to his wounds. The head cut soon healed but the damage to his eyes was mysterious. At first the doctors put it down to the trauma Peter had suffered but when no progress was observed it was decided to transfer him to the Mental Hospital, for the change in his personality gave every indication of being permanent.
“I must get word to Bob,” was all he would say, “he will know what to do.”
But there was no Bob.
During a brief police investigation, the one-toothed man explained that Peter ought to have minded his own business. Consenting adults were entitled to behave as they wished without interference, he argued. Peter had attacked him, he’d had every right to defend himself and his partner. If Peter hadn’t poked his nose in where it was not wanted his head would never have struck the wood pile. It was probably only concussion anyway. Boxers get it all the while.
“When I hit a man he stays down!”
Anthony stopped dressing up as Antonia. Her clothes and shoes he cleared from his locker at work and burnt. He had her long hair shorn off and his future as her he abandoned. After resigning from his job with the council he applied for a vacancy as an orderly at the mental hospital while in his spare time he attended courses to train as an auxiliary nurse.
After working at the mental hospital for a while, Anthony began to look more like a patient than a historian. The shabby jacket with a button missing, the lank hair and haunted eyes were those of a troubled soul. However, his work as an orderly was appreciated by the matron, so the newly-qualified auxiliary had little difficulty convincing her to let him work on the wards where, in due course, he was able to tend to Peter.
Although Peter lived in a world of his own as Pyotr, he was calmer in Anthony’s presence. Eventually Anthony was permitted to take him out of the hospital grounds for short visits to other parts of the town. The doctors’ committee postulated that frequenting the scene of his trauma might trigger a complete reverse reaction rather than the occasional flashback.
Physically, Anthony now looked very unlike Antonia but when he went into work one morning and found the boxer waiting by his locker his innards turned to junket.
“What the fuck’s a matter with you? Seen a ghost or something?”
Although the boxer had cleaned himself up and stubble no longer blackened his face, the voice and hard manners were the same.
“What are you doing here?” Anthony stammered.
“Working, same as you. Now unlock this fucking locker before I smash it open.”
Anthony fumbled with the padlock, relieved now that he realised the man must have been told to put on the spare overalls that were usually kept in Anthony’s locker. The boxer observed his shaking hands.
“Wait a minute; don’t I know you from somewhere?”
“I’m new around here,” said Anthony, “unless you come from Berkshire, too.”
“A berk from Berkshire!”
Anthony wondered how Antonia could possibly have been attracted to such a moron. The man’s one-toothed leer made his face look like a punctured football. Was it Fate or coincidence that had brought them together again as workmates? Anthony would have to overcome his revulsion. He upped his daily intake of Woodbines to forty a day.
The two of them took to driving sick Peter to the common in the hospital’s laundry van. It gave Anthony a good opportunity to smoke and reflect upon what might have been while Peter, or Pyotr as he was now, wandered harmlessly enough through the streets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
One late summer’s morning found the common deserted and nurse Anthony in need of cigarettes. He sat Pyotr on his folding chair by his imaginary bandstand. The patient looked calm enough sitting there, a morning breeze tousling his mop of hair. Anthony was away for not ten minutes – the time to walk to the newsagents opposite the clapboarded clock tower and back. And the time for the wind to carry to Pyotr the scent of an angelic lover waiting for him in the woods.
At last the ordeal was over. Strong arms dragged Carter to his feet. The boxer’s bloodshot eyes drilled menacingly into Carter’s.
“Keep your mouth shut about this or I’ll fucking kill you. I know where you live. Breathe a word and I’ll find you and rip your tongue out faster than …”
Carter didn’t hear the rest. He had already decided he was going to kill himself; it was just a matter of how and where.
Violence was everywhere. It was more powerful than love; it was king of the universe. It was the starting point of time, its lifeblood and its ultimate conclusion. From big bang to apocalypse it ruled. No life existed without it, love and kindness were but its facets, as were hate and cruelty. Even the yellow killers nurtured their own queen. Carter could take no more of it. He had one last act to perform and then there would be peace, cold and inviting.
Anthony hurried across the common with the clamminess of a morning mist clinging to his worried face like a wet flannel. Where had Pyotr got to? Although Anthony didn’t think it was necessary, the hospital had always insisted he should never let the patient out of his sight. He couldn’t rely on the boxer to keep watch.
“The bloke’s a fucking nutter. Always was.”
Anthony constantly wondered what would have happened had Peter not stumbled upon him and the boxer that day. He turned it over again and again in his mind. Peter had been so naïve! Sooner or later he would have found out the truth. At first, going out with the virile boxer had accentuated Antonia’s feelings of femininity but before long she discovered it was only her male parts he was interested in; she was the perfect alibi for his secret preference. Anthony had felt so alive as Antonia yet he had lain her to rest because, as Tchaikovsky surely knew when he composed The Maid of Orleans, a person of both male and female characteristics who falls in love with a man will be ostracized by society. Most of who he was had died that day by the log pile. The rest hung on by a thread, neither woman nor man.
“If Pyotr has done something bad I shall have to terminate him too. And then myself,” he whispered.
The only things that kept Anthony going were his love of Tchaikovsky’s music and his duty towards the composer’s simulacra.
Seemingly enjoying the drama, the droplets of mist gathering over the common called on others to join them until the mist turned to fog.
Anthony heard a piercing scream. He hastened towards it but in the fog he was unsure in which direction to go.
Another cry. It seemed to be the voice of a child, perhaps an adolescent. Anthony ran blindly, like a car with no headlights. And in his head an agitated tune was playing – the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique.
With a squelch, Anthony’s feet slipped from beneath him. He slithered on wet mud and before he could stop himself his behind hit the water of the pond, just as the music in his head ended on a huge sigh.
“This is it! The moment he accepts his fate!”
Running headlong into the fog, leaving a trail of blood drips behind him in the snow like redcurrants on a bowl of cream, Carter put as much distance between himself and the boxer as he could.
He paused for breath by a lime tree. Unable to contain the gush of sick that was welling up in his innards, Carter brought up the contents of his stomach over the tree’s exposed roots. It looked like seagull droppings.
“Drowning, that’s a good way to do it,” he muttered.
They would find his body bloated and pale but clean. That way no-one would ever know what had happened.
“Been having a good time, Carter?”
The sons of Knowledge, Manners and Virtue were out and about. They gathered round Carter and shoved him from one to the other, spinning him around like a ballerina.
“What you were up to back there?”
And at the end of each revolution they administered a dead-leg. Again and again.
“We don’t care much for queens, pretty boy!”
They were yellow ants, that’s all they were. Carter’s legs were numb, his bottom raw, his mouth on fire.
Drowning. Would it hurt? It was no worse than anything he had already suffered. A mouthful of mud then blackness and peace at last.
“Hey Carter! Wanna suck me off?”
Carter offered no resistance. Said nothing. Keeping mum is the prerogative of the weak.
In his head Carter heard a voice. Peaceful and tempting, the dying queen was calling him, beyond the pain of the scores of yellow harpoons planted in her fat body.
“Come with me boy, to the kingdom of light!”
Alerted by the soggy squelch of Anthony’s boots approaching through the fog, the deadleggers backed off. Carter continued to spin, his eyes vacant and the seat of his trousers caked with mud and blood.
Anthony held Carter by the shoulders to halt the spiralling.
“Who did this to you?” he asked.
“It’s alright, I am the ant queen’s valet,” replied Carter in a voice that came from afar, “we are going to swim in the pond.”
The mists swirling on the common drew back and formed a grey wall around its edges, enclosing within its bounds a theatrical dome of silence for mortal ears. The sort of quietness that made living men aware of their own jugular blood, an unnerving anechoicness through which the plains of emptiness that lie beyond death are perceived. Yet from those plains where no heart beats there came a rustling of ethereal feet, shuffling imperceptibly into rows before the bandstand.
A pale moon rose and shed wan light upon the scene. A second moon rose higher in the sky, this one bilious green and smelling of mildew. More moons followed, throwing weak rays of different hue upon the bandstand, picking out the tracery of its latticework like veins on a moth’s wings, and dappling the surface of the pond in a kaleidoscope of anaemic colour.
There was activity on the bandstand. A full Tchaikovsky orchestra dressed in white tuxedos had gathered, their milky faces shimmering in the odd light as the musicians waited for their conductor.
Somewhere in the distance a crow cawed. By the lily pads out on the pond a trio of alabaster faces drifted beneath the surface; three corpses for five deceased: Pyotr, Carter and Anthony. Peter and Antonia.
Pyotr was the first to rise.
Anthony abandoned Carter and chased into the woods in pursuit of the men. He paused in front of the Tchaikovsky log. Why had it all come to this? Was androgyny such a crime? He had been so happy as a woman. It all seemed such a long while ago, now. He shuddered. Suddenly a bleak hiss sang out from deep within the woods; its painful sound hovered over the tree canopies like fingers stuck in an electric light socket.
A second pond lay hidden in the woods, camouflaged by undergrowth, its surface stilled by green slime and lily pads. It was into its icy waters that the one-toothed boxer had stumbled in his haste to put distance between himself and the boy who, he knew, was bound to blab. His dog did not followed him into the water; it whimpered and backed away. Then came a hideous hiss as the silver swan that ruled the slime pond saw him.
Anthony separated the brush that bordered the second pond and recoiled immediately as the dog shot past him, its eyes wild.
Antony saw the silver swan spread its wings and rise up to its full height, menacing the boxer with Day of Judgment eyes, rooting him to the spot, a place of cold water and leeches. As the creature approached him the boxer shielded his eyes and turned away. His boots were heavy with the squelch of slime and each time he managed to extract one from the mud it made sucking noises like a flatulent pig and foul-smelling effluvia escaped from the depths of the pond. The swan was gaining ground on him.
Suddenly the boxer turned back to face the swan. “I can fell any man with a single blow,” he cried, “I do not fear you, goose!”
The swan hissed again but this time the boxer heard cold words trickle into his brain.
“You have destroyed a man,” said the beast, “and you have raped a child.” And then it put its neck straight out in front of it and spat.
The boxer felt a searing pain in one eye and clasped his hand to his head. The socket was empty.
“An eye for an eye,” said the swan, still within striking distance, “your time is nigh.”
Like a demolition ball attacking a derelict building, the swan swung its head on its long neck and struck the boxer a massive blow. The latter fell back into the water and lay still, the empty eye socket filling with slime. The swan waggled its tail back and forth over the boxer’s body. Then it turned away and began to waddle slowly back across the pond.
“My god, I don’t believe this, I’m as mad as Peter,” mumbled Anthony as he retreated from the pond and found his way back to the Tchaikovsky log. He sat down and remained motionless, dreaming of flecks of turquoise. It was a while before he noticed the collie dog at his feet, sadness in its eyes and silent whimpers manifesting themselves as shivers rippling along its back. He picked the dog up and cuddled it.
It was thanks to the dog that Anthony found Pyotr, its nose more useful than sight when it came to following a scent, although Anthony wondered how it knew where he wanted to go.
Pyotr was sitting by the pond, an angelic look on his face.
“Where is the heaven that we hoped would be?” he chanted, “Where is the gladness my heart came to see?”
Taking Pyotr by the hand, Anthony slowly backed into the water. As coldness lapped about their knees, ripples disturbed a water boatman. The insect kicked off on its back towards a pair of other world swans gliding unseen towards it, as the pallid figure of an old man gathered the voiceless collie to his side on the edge of the pond and cupped an ear to hear the next line of the forlorn love song. He moved a hand in the faintest of waves, as if to bless them.
While Anthony was reciting the next line of the song, the blessing wave flowed over him and the timbre of his voice altered and his features softened.
“Where is the rapture we can’t recapture?”
With her free hand Antonia drew Peter’s face towards her lips.
“Where is the future your love promised me?” she murmured.
The swans circled the couple, sealing their embrace within a ring of eternity.
“Where is the splendid world I shared with you?” they whispered together until Antonia lay back in the water and drew Peter on top of her, the bubbles from their terminal breaths mingling with the murk that would become their resting place.
Pyotr and Anthony, Antonia and Peter. Had any of them looked beyond the swans they would have seen another drowning shape, its schoolboy face no longer in pain, resting on a pillow of hornwort.
Water dripped from Pyotr’s clothes like strings of pearls as he rose from the pond. Carter and Anthony also got to their feet, followed by Antonia and Peter. Like moths drying their wings after emerging from their chrysalides, the five of them stood damp and gleaming in the moonlight.
“Be ye welcome,” said the pallid man, “see what ye see while see ye still can; then decide...” The voice trailed away, as fragile as a moth’s wing.
“Where am I?” asked Anthony.
“Neither here nor there,” replied the man, spreading his arms.
The air here was cool.
“Am I free?” asked Carter.
“Maybe,” the old man replied, “maybe not, I couldn’t say.”
“I can see again!” exclaimed Pyotr; “and look at the audience waiting for me, I must find my baton!”
“It’s in your hand.”
Indeed it was, and now he was in white tie and tails.
“I don’t believe this,” said Peter, “Antonia!”
“Are we dead then? Is this the day of judgment?” she asked.
The pallid man coughed.
“There’s no such thing,” he said, “here is there without the judging, so we have no violence.”
“Oh, I think I’m going to like it here,” said Carter.
A set of wicker gates materialised at the entrance to the linden avenue. They flew open and an army of worker ants marched through them in well-ordered lines and came to a halt before Carter, where they split ranks to let through a battalion of soldiers, the latter sounding a miniature fanfare on tiny trumpets held in their mandibles. They too drew apart to allow a fat and full queen pass. Her body was golden and on her head she wore a green crown of glowing aphids. She bowed before Carter and two of her attendants took the crown and laid it at his feet.
“Well I’ve never seen anything like that before,” said the pallid man as the ants withdrew, “I never thought I would live and die to see a son of Gaia!”
Peter nudged Antonia.
The majestic wings of the silver swan hove into view above the lindens, bearing the boxer prostrate on its back. It dropped lazily down and circled the bandstand—upon which Pyotr, his upright form and mad hair illuminated by the magic moons, was inclining his head in recognition of the tumultuous reception given by the assembly—before heading off in the direction of the mildew moon.
Pyotr wetted his thumb and leafed through the score before him until he found the page he was looking for. He raised his arms and stood motionless, his eyes ablaze, baton poised lightly between his fingertips, summoning the orchestra to order. When finally their white coats were still and their instruments were ready Pyotr turned to the hushed assembly and announced “We are going to play a waltz from my ballet Swan Lake.”
When, after an initial flourish from the orchestra, the distinctive one-two-three, one-two-three tempo began there appeared a crowd of waltzing couples, tunics and epaulettes for the men and taffeta for the ladies. A hussar in full dress, with gold braid resplendent down the front of his pelisse and woven into intricate patterns along his arms, unbuckled his scabbard and laid it at Antonia’s feet.
“May I?” he said, addressing Peter.
“Erm, yes of course.”
And with that the hussar swept Antonia away to join the swirling circles, now moving faster and seemingly rising in the air. His wild hair flying in all directions, Pyotr waved his baton theatrically as the music moved towards its climax. Finally, with a series of mighty slashes, he brought the work to its conclusion and the crowd began to cheer. The dancers melted away in the wind generated by the tumult. The hussar returned Antonia to Peter’s side and his shako to his head, after which he too dissolved into emptiness.
“Have you made up your minds yet?” said the pallid man.
“What about?” asked Peter.
“Here we are neither here nor there and you have to decide whether you are coming or going. Back or onwards, it’s up to you.”
“So there is a heaven then?” asked Carter.
“I couldn’t say. I am only a crossover, you see. I come and go between here and there. You can go back if you wish, or stay and meet Mother Earth.”
“That’s who Gaia is,” Antonia whispered in Peter’s ear, “this is so weird!”
“Oh I don’t want to go back!”
“Grand. Now we must sort the four who are two.”
Anthony moved to where Antonia floated and stood facing her.
“So weird!” they said in unison, “you are my mirror,” and then their forms merged into one, which began to pulsate between male and female.
“Only one part may go back, the other must remain here. When you were alive did you become who you were?”
The pallid man’s questions were not easy to fathom.
“We preferred being Antonia,” said the oscillating form, “if that’s what you mean.”
“What about Pyotr?” asked Peter.
“He does not exist.”
“Nor do we!”
“I’ll grant you that. And since we are neither here nor there it follows that we are in fact nowhere.”
“That make no sense.”
“Paradoxes never do. Actually they do if you accept that they don’t. Whichever way you look at it, they are the masters of the universe.”
“But I am – was – Pyotr and I am guilty of raping this poor child.”
“The swan will come for him but you still have a choice.”
Peter floated in front of the androgynous form into which Anthony and Antonia had coalesced.
“Will you come back with me?”
“Ah, love,” said the pallid man, “the greatest mystery of them all. Well then that’s settled. The collie dog will show you the way. He’s a crossover too. You must return to this spot from time to time and when your time runs out he will bring you back.”
Carter was beaming.
“Can I be a crossover, too?”
“What, and keep Gaia waiting?”
A dot appeared on the surface of the mildew moon; it grew steadily in size until could be discerned the unmistakable silhouette of the silver swan soaring down towards the bandstand. With languid ease it came up behind Peter and threaded its neck between his legs and swept him onto its back. Pyotr was borne away, still waving his baton and with his hair flying in the winds of silence.
“It doesn’t matter,” said the pallid man, “we already have plenty of composers here in neither here nor there. I know them quite well actually. Some of them are double-deads you know.”
“Pardon me?” said Carter.
The pallid man explained that when people like Antonia and Peter go back to the land of the living and eventual die they return to neither here nor there as double-deads.
“Isn’t that the same as a crossover?”
“Not at all. Crossovers can’t be seen by the living although some people do sense their presence. We know better, of course, but the living think that go-backers have been resuscitated, a ‘near-death experience’ they call it. When they wake up some of them report having seen a bright light towards which they walked. That would be me, I always carry a torch!”
“What happens when people get taken to the mildew moon?” asked Carter.
“All I can tell you is that it doesn’t smell too good up there some days,” replied the pallid man, “the swan says his job is to drop them off into a molecule mangle and it makes the moon happy.”
“I knew it!” cried Carter, “I was right all along. Everything is spheres. Don’t you see? If the moon is happy it means it thinks. And so does the Universe!”
“Spheres? That reminds me of something I used to do,” said the ever less pallid man, “but first I have another task.”
He picked up the sword and scabbard left behind by the melted hussar and jabbed it in the direction of Antonia’s nether regions.
“I’m sure Peter will agree with me that you won’t be needing that anymore.”
With a flourish and looking livelier by the minute, he unsheathed the sword.
Antonia took a step backwards.
“Come, come, let me chop it off for you, it won’t hurt.”
And with that he raised his sword.
“No!” cried Peter. “Look, it’s true she fooled me but I fell in love with Antonia as she was and I don’t want to change a single thing. Our love is all that matters.”
Antonia hugged him.
“Amazing! Love, the great mystery,” enthused the pallid man, now completely rejuvenated, “stronger than any molecule mangle! In my day it was Tommy Dorsey’s ‘Our love is everywhere’!”
The man stretched his arms up above his head and bent over backwards until he was able to grab his heels behind his back to form a ring. The newly-dead marvelled at his extraordinary suppleness but it seemed anything was possible in neither here nor there.
While, like a Ferris wheel, the pallid man ring began to spin, a collie dog sidled up to the lovers, a lead in its mouth.
“Spheres and circles, rings and rolls, held together with bandstand poles,” sang the wheel as it picked up speed. Before long it was turning so quickly that multi-coloured sparks began to fly off it. A sizzling blob of turquoise fell on Antonia and made her glow.
“Have a great time you two,” yelled the spinning wheel, “I must fly now!”
It lifted into the air and began to move forward like a circular saw.
“Remember! Go with the dog!” it cried.
Like the devilish offspring of a catherine wheel and a jumping jack, the rotating wheel backfired and careered in all directions, shouting “love, love, love!” as it went.
Peter picked up the dog’s lead and took Antonia’s hand.
“Are you ready?”
The turquoise flecks in her eyes danced their consent.
“There’s just one condition,” said Peter.
“Oh, and what’s that?”
“I never want to be a composer again!”
“Oh Peter, I love you.”
“I say, isn’t this wonderful?” cried the catherine wheel and with a crashing of gears it took off across the grass.
“Hey, where are you going?” yelled Carter.
“Can’t hang around here any longer. I must find the composers!” came the jubilant reply, “I’m going to roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news!”
Three bodies were discovered in the pond by a group of schoolboys.
“My god it’s Carter,” cried one.
“And isn’t that the man who thought he was Tchaikovsky and his minder? We’d better get out of here,” said another.
Later that day a single body was fished from the water.
The disturbing goings on caused quite a hoo-ha in the town that year, especially when it was revealed that, in addition to the drowned schoolboy, a patient and two hospital orderlies had vanished without trace.
Today the story is long forgotten for it goes without saying that the sons of Knowledge, Manners and Virtue never breathed a word about what they had seen.
Nevertheless, some people still say it’s best to avoid the common at night, for tales persist of turquoise eyes that shine in the dark and of eerie music playing just out of earshot.
The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, by his brother Modeste.
Le Dictionnaire de la Musique. Larousse.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Wikipedia.
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 by Timothy L. Jackson
Symphony No. 6, Pathétique. Tchaikovsky.
Swan Lake. Ballet. Tchaikovsky.
The Maid of Orleans. Opera. Tchaikovsky.
Where. The Platters.
Rollover Beethoven. Chuck Berry.
Our love. Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra.
Military Marches. Thomas Bidgood.
Old Russian Waltzes. A YouTube mix.